PhD program that double-counts Master's degree credits?

Started by Aster, July 22, 2023, 06:53:05 AM

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I'm currently on a faculty hiring committee, and am reviewing graduate transcripts. I've got one applicant that has a master's degree from University-X. The master's degree is fine.

However, the applicant also shows a PhD from same University-X. Close examination of the PhD transcript pulls up two oddities. The PhD degree was earned very fast (3 years). And there's only a fraction of a normal PhD's total credit load. Like, 30 credits maybe in total for the whole PhD. It should be at 90+ credits.

So that's something that I don't normally see. Drilling into the transcripts more carefully, I see what is going on. The university is taking all of the master's degree credits (ALL of them), and then reusing them a SECOND time into a separate PhD program. So basically, it's a 3-year, 50 credit PhD.

I am familiar with PhD programs at R1 universities where it is possible for a student to pick up an additional Master's degree during the course of his/her PhD studies. My colleagues that have done that normally spend additional time (2+ extra years) in their PhD program to earn those extra credits. And those people came in as doctoral students, but simply leveraged in an extra master's thesis along with a separate dissertation.

What am I *not* familiar with is a reverse scenario, whereby a Master's-level program is leveraged to skip 2-3 years (and also 40-60 credits) ahead into a separate PhD program, effectively giving you a full Master's degree and also a PhD in five years but only putting in about half the work for the PhD.

I am aware that one can often transfer a few (up to 12 is what I'm familiar with) graduate credits when entering into a new PhD program. But 40 credits seems much like cheating to me.

It's a regional R2 university that's doing this. The university is a regional master's level institution, but has started offering a few "Interdisciplinary" PhD programs.

My questions are,
1. Is it common and/or appropriate for an institution to offer graduate programs where one can double-count one's entire master's degree credit load into a separate PhD program, cutting the PhD program work in half?
2. Where have you seen programs like this offered in the U.S.?
3. Would an earned PhD at such an institution be viewed competitively against a more conventional PhD?


In the US, it's common in my field for students to "earn" a Master's along the way to the PhD, usually once they've passed all the requirements to become ABD.  There's no extra time involved. That would result in the kind of double-counting you're seeing, I think.

That sort of thing is done at most, but not all, US PhD programs in my field. The PhD counts for as much as any other PhD as far as the field is concerned. And if they never complete the PhD, the Master's would count for as much as another Master's.

Because so few courses (~10 seems to be usual) in the subject are required to major at the UG level in the US, however, and because it's common (though increasingly less so) for US students to go straight from UG to the PhD, it means that quite a lot of PhDs just don't have that much coursework in the discipline. So their education ends up being pretty narrowly focused compared to someone from another country who might have done twice as much UG coursework, followed by twice as much graduate coursework.
I know it's a genus.


As long as it meets the accreditation body's requirements for  x credits beyond the ba it is acceptable. Many European doctorates have no or almost no coursework at all. I would instead judge the candidate by looking if they have the research credentials and teaching background that you need. If you are concerned about depth you can ask that in a preliminary interview assuming they make the cut.


Kudos to you for actually looking at the transcripts at this stage.

Yes, double-counting is just fine, if you consider that the Masters is a milestone credential that is earned on the way towards earning the PhD (or consolation prize, if the PhD is not completed). It's kind of like how an Associates degree can be earned on the way towards a Bachelors degree.

There are even instances (although rare) where someone can "transfer" in a completed Masters degree from an altogether different institution, which will satisfy the first two years' coursework at the institution where the PhD will be earned. I've heard of the University of Michigan doing this.


In my field, it is very common for a Masters degree to be earned along the way to a PhD, usually without a written thesis but some evidence of research accomplishments (i.e., the thesis requirement is waived for those making progress toward a PhD). The Masters is awarded in the second or third year. The relevant coursework is counted for both degrees.


Thank you for the responses. It is very nice to have second (and third and fourth) opinions. Having screened transcripts on hundreds of faculty applicants over the years, I've almost never seen this sort of thing before on a detailed transcript audit. Whenever I see applicants who've got both the MS and PhD's at the same place, they almost always have 30+ credits in the Master's degree, and 90+ credits in the PhD degree. Rarely do I see more than a dozen or so credits from the Master's degree counted a second time into a separate PhD program. This is maybe the second time ever that I've seen an entire Master's degree carried over to knock multiple years off a PhD degree.

Where I've worked at in the past, failed PhD students will commonly be given a consolation prize of a non-thesis Master's degree as they're kicked out the door. But I've not seen until now a program where a (non-vocational) Master's degree is formally embedded within some sort of comboed PhD program, if that is indeed what I'm seeing with this applicant.

But if you folks have seen this kind of thing where you're at, and it's not viewed as terribly unethical or nuts, I'll go with that. Maybe I haven't seen it before because I'm in the wrong discipline or have worked mostly in one part of the U.S..

I much like Lightning's analogy with an Associate's degree and a Bachelor's degree. Thank you for that. I will try to think about the situation that way, rather than what I was thinking before, of another hungry overstressed R2 doing anything to hook graduate student tuition.

And yeah, I do a lot of transcript auditing. The reason is because my work institution is an open enrollment institution that few people want to work at, and just about the only way to perform a quality check on applicants is via academic transcripts. Very few of our applicants have much or any research experience, and have little or no teaching experience outside of maybe part-timing at community colleges. Heck, most of our applicants don't send cover letters or even know what a CV is. More typically, I get 2-page resumes that culminate in a listing of personal hobbies, zoo memberships, and self-published books.


I know several people who have graduated with a PhD from an Ivy League school who have, within the span of five to seven years, an MA degree, an M.Phil, and a PhD. The first two degrees are pretty much automatic (you have to apply for them and pay a certain fee, but they do not require any more work than the PhD itself would take). I suppose that if you drop out or otherwise do not finish the PhD program, they serve as a certain consolation prize.

At my school, master's degrees are really not that important. What is important is the terminal degree. Of course, having an MA can add prestige. It can also be important if it is in a different field than the PhD. I only have a PhD; the guy in the office next door to me has two Master's degrees from two different universities (as well as a PhD from a third university). We are the same rank.


Ah yes. If you have a BPhil from Oxford and graduated more than two years ago, you can buy an MPhil for fifty pounds. (The cost may have risen somewhat recently.)

I've encountered a few who your their Oxford MPhils.not many, though.
I know it's a genus.


My (U.S.) university does that master's-degree-along-the-way thing. And at the UK university where I got my PhD, 3 years was the norm for a PhD. That was all dissertation — no coursework at all. So, obviously, procedures differ. But if the student genuinely has a PhD according to the granting university's standards, I'd say they genuinely have a PhD.


I was going to ask why you care so much about transcripts and coursework, but you addressed it in your response.  However, I would still advise you keep an open mind.  As mentioned, European (and Canadian) programs do not have as much coursework and our transcripts would look very light.  This doesn't reflect the quality of the program or degree IMO, although it does perhaps lead to a greater focus on the research component, which perhaps is less important to you?

The focus on coursework in US programs has always seemed a little odd to me, but every system is different I suppose.

I also don't see any issue with a three year PhD, especially since this seems like they did the MSc there as well.  I completed my PhD in just under three years, and always felt it was a sign of accomplishment.  I published as much, or more, than most PhD grads in less time, that seems like a positive...


For what it is worth, I did my PhD in history in five years. I spent two years at an American university doing coursework. After earning 34 graduate credits, I dropped out of my program, moved to Britain, got accepted into a PhD program there, and wrote my thesis and defended it in three years. I did not earn a master's degree and I didn't really "transfer" to a British university because they did not care about the credits I had already done.

If I had stayed in the program in the US, I would have needed to spend another two to three years doing coursework, and then would have had to write my PhD. I probably would have earned a MA and maybe an MPhil en route.

I raise this because I agree that there is too much course work in an American PhD program. To some degree, I think that this reflects the fact that there are too many courses required at the undergraduate level. That is, at most US universities, students take four years of courses for a BA (although many end up taking five or six), and between a quarter and forty per cent are general ed courses that have nothing to do with the major. In Britain, the BA is three years, and the focus is on their major. So my experience is that a graduating BA student at a good British university is probably at the level of a second-year graduate student at an American university, in terms of their reading and knowledge of the field.

Personally, I think that if it required fewer years to get a PhD, it would not result in any lower quality, and it would reduce the opportunity cost of the degree, so that people who got a PhD and were unable to find a teaching job (which is the overwhelming majority of many fields) would be out three or four years, not seven or eight years. I do not think this is going to happen for various reasons, but I do think that too much time is wasted in coursework in graduate school.

Back to the OP's situation: while I think that a MA degree could be useful for the applicant (especially those who are weaker at the BA level), I do not think it means much for the employer. Assuming that the MA and the PhD are in the same field, I do not think it makes any sense to hire somebody because they have a MA and a PhD (much less an MPhil as well) over somebody with just a PhD. I could see reasons why specific cases might be different (an MA in a different field, or an MA from a certain type of school that is more similar to the school that is hiring) but not as a general view.


When I received my PhD, there were two pathways to graduation: let's call them underwater basketweaving and outer space basket weaving. Both required 36 hours of coursework, but they were not the same hours. The Underwater folks could get finished in 3 years, partly because their dissertation could be culled from work they did for courses. The Outer Space folks, of which I was one, finished in 5 years -- we had a few more hoops, including written comps, prospectus + defense, brand new dissertation + defense. Outer Space folks needed to seek funding for years 4+5.

The Outer Space faculty, thinking that their pathway as more rigorous and prestigious, sought to attract more students (I was the only OS student in a cohort of 9 that year). So they instituted a 2+3 year PhD pathway -- it was essentially an accelerated MA program in which 30 out of 36 hours done at the MA level then counted as PhD coursework (the other 6 hours were graduate school requirements). If they didn't finish, they were conferred an MA. But the last three years were spent conducting dissertation research. Oh, and the grad school funded all 5 years. I wonder if what OP is seeing is something similar?


My R1 graduate alma mater also had the earn-an-MA-as-part-of-the-PhD system.  If you washed out at the dissertation phase, you still had the MA as a consolation prize.  Not sure how much consolation it was in practice after investing five or six years in the program only to wash out. 

Like jerseyjay, I believe that the PhD process in the U.S. in fields like history often takes an inordinate amount of time, and involves an inordinately high opportunity cost.  It's an especially dirty trick when your program gives you four years of funding for a degree that will probably take two or three more of that, and provides only outrageously poorly-paid grading and TA work in place of fifth-year funding.  Nice way to suck a naive student in and make him or her feel there's no choice but to try to continue at any cost.
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I'm quite surprised that you've surprised and haven't seen this before-- another good lesson on how different fields (and countries) can be very different!  In my field (psych) in the US, it is utterly normal for an masters to be awarded along the way to the PhD without separate coursework for the two degrees-They are not considered separate programs, it is just an intermediate step. A PhD in the sciences is not generally about classes anyway-they are just something you do on the side, with research and training in your lab as the core.

In my PhD program you were required to get the MA (including defending a thesis) by the beginning of your third year in the program. In the department where I'm faculty, it is optional and far less onerous- they simply have to submit their 1st year project (required regardless) and fill out a form. Some don't bother, but it is apparently helpful for the international students to have the MA in some cases for visa renewal, and of course it is a consolation prize for those that drop out.

This is distinct from when a PhD student comes in having done a masters elsewhere-- that may wave some requirements (e.g., they can skip regular grad stats and go straight to advanced stats courses), but since they still need to be enrolled full time, and still need the full program length to do research, it doesn't usually result in them skipping many courses or reducing time in program.
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I received my MA from Uni A and my PhD from Uni B. Uni B accepted 30 credit hours toward my PhD from MA coursework at Uni A. I ended up doing about two years of PhD coursework. The deal was sweeter if you stayed at the same school, since they would accept all of your MA coursework towards the PhD. I don't know anyone in my field who did 90 hours of PhD coursework on top of a separate MA.